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Aldermen defy Lightfoot, advance plan to raise threshold for speed camera tickets back to 10 mph

Aldermen advance plan to raise threshold for speed camera tickets back to 10 mph
Aldermen advance plan to raise threshold for speed camera tickets back to 10 mph 02:16

CHICAGO (CBS) -- By a razor-thin margin, the City Council Finance Committee on Tuesday voted to raise the threshold for getting a ticket from one of the city's 162 speed cameras from 6 mph to 10 mph, more than a year after the lower threshold went into effect.

The Finance Committee voted 16-15 to return to the original threshold of 10 mph, a move Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) has been pushing for since just a few weeks after the 6 mph threshold went into effect last year, leading to a surge in speeding tickets.

The plan now goes to the full City Council for a vote on Wednesday.

"We've been trying to right the wrong on this corrupt red light camera/speed light camera system," Beale said ahead of Tuesday's vote.

The vote came over the objections of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who had asked aldermen ahead of Tuesday's meeting to vote down Beale's ordinance.

Late Tuesday, Mayor Lightfoot decried the vote in favor of the ordinance – calling it a threat to public safety. She also called out each and every alderman who voted for the proposal by name:

"Today, by a 16 to 15 vote, the City Council Committee on Finance voted to sanction higher speeds around schools and parks, when it seems that every day there is another traffic fatality because of speeding and reckless drivers. It is simply unconscionable that, after losing 173 Chicagoans to speed-related traffic fatalities in 2021, some Aldermen are acting with so little regard for public safety. By state law, the revenues generated by these fines help pay for public safety, infrastructure, after-school programming in parks and schools, Safe Passage workers, and many more vital programs.  

"The Aldermen voting to allow increased speeds around schools and parks are: Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward), Pat Dowell (3rd Ward), Sophia King (4th Ward), Leslie Hairston (5th Ward), Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward), Anthony Beale (9th Ward), Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th Ward), Marty Quinn (13th Ward), Raymond Lopez (15th Ward), David Moore (17th Ward), Matthew O'Shea (19th Ward), Silvana Tabares, (23rd Ward), Anthony Napolitano (41st Ward), Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward), Tom Tunney (44th Ward), Debra Silverstein (50th Ward). Residents need to remember these names. 

"What happened today is simply not responsible governance. I will not let City Council jeopardize public safety."

Some of the mayor's top aides had tried to convince aldermen to keep the speed camera ticket threshold where it is, with Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi telling aldermen, "Speed kills, and that's what we're seeing here in our city and other cities across the country."

Biagi said the city saw a 15% increase in traffic fatalities in 2021, compared to 2020, and that increase has been linked in part to speeding. She said the 174 traffic deaths in 2021 was the most in the past decade.

"People are driving fast, they're driving furious, they're driving distracted, they're driving under the influence, and they're driving without a seatbelt," Biagi said. "Anything we can do to get folks to slow down is something that we want to make sure happens in our city. It's going to save lives."

Biagi said a study by the University of Illinois at Chicago last year found that the city's speed camera program prevented 208 injury crashes over a three-year period from 2016 to 2018, a reduction of 12% compared to the years 2010 to 2012, before speed cameras were installed in Chicago. She said the study also found the number of severe crashes was reduced by 15%, meaning 36 fewer people not severely injured or killed during that time.

However, Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) noted that the UIC study didn't analyze data on how the lower 6 mph threshold would have affected traffic crash statistics in Chicago.

"We're mixing apples and oranges in trying to make the case for whether or not this actually directly correlates to what has gone on," Lopez said.

City officials told aldermen they are working to get that data, but that traffic data related to speed cameras in 2021 would also be complicated by the fact that schools were closed part of the year due to the pandemic, so many speed cameras were not operating because they're only used in active school zones.

The lower threshold was approved by the mayor and the City Council as part of the city's 2021 budget plan, and Lightfoot has repeatedly argued it's a matter of public safety.

"At a time when we have seen a 15% increase in traffic fatalities over two years, including 174 deaths in 2021 alone, it is unconscionable that any City Council member would consider voting to allow for increased speeds near spaces utilized by our children," Lightfoot said in a statement ahead of Tuesday's vote.

The CBS 2 Investigators analyzed city traffic crash data and looked at how many traffic deaths occurred before and after the threshold for issuing tickets was lowered. From March 2019 to March 2020, the 12 months before the coronavirus pandemic hit, there were 104 fatal accidents and 110 deaths citywide. 6 of those accidents and deaths were within two-tenths of a mile from a speed camera.

From March 2020 to March 2021, the numbers were 131 fatal accidents and 142 deaths citywide. Nine fatal accidents and 10 deaths near speed cameras. 

In the 12 months after the ticketing change, from March 2021 to March 2022 there were 168 fatal accidents, with 181 deaths. 13 accidents and 13 deaths near speed cameras. 

Lightfoot has also acknowledged raising the threshold for speed camera tickets will cost the city nearly $45 million in funding for public safety programs, Safe Passage workers at schools and parks, and city infrastructure improvements.

The Department of Finance told CBS 2 from March 1, 2021, the date the ticketing speed was lowered to 6 miles per hour over the limit, through April 27, 2022 speed cameras issued more than two million tickets. Fines assessed for those tickets totaled more than $105 million.

Beale accused the mayor of changing her tune on the need for the cameras as Tuesday's vote approached. He was originally hoping to get a vote on the ordinance after it received its first public hearing by the Finance Committee last week, but the meeting was recessed before a vote which was then rescheduled for Tuesday.

"Just last week we were told this is strictly about public safety, public safety, public safety. And a couple of days later, now we're saying that it's about revenue," Beale said.

Beale has tried at least three previous times to force a full City Council vote, only to be defeated by the mayor and her allies.

His ordinance was introduced just weeks after the city's speed cameras began issuing tickets under the new threshold last March, but it wasn't until last week that he was able to get a public hearing on his proposal.

The ordinance would end the ticketing of drivers caught by speed cameras while driving 6 mph to 9 mph over the limit, and resume ticketing only drivers exceeding the speed limit by 10 mph or more. Those caught exceeding the speed limit by 10 mph would still receive $35 tickets, and those going 11 mph or more over the limit would still get $100 tickets.

Lightfoot and the City Council lowered the ticket speeding threshold from 10 mph down to 6 on March 1, 2021, as part of the city's 2021 budget plan. The number of speeding tickets that were issued quickly skyrocketed after the new lower threshold went into effect.

Within weeks of when the new lower threshold went into effect, Beale introduced his ordinance seeking to reverse that change, but his proposal was stalled for more than a year, and at least three attempts by Beale to force a vote by the full City Council during that time failed as Lightfoot's allies successfully blocked Beale's ordinance until now.

Aldermen were sharply divided on the issue at Tuesday's hearing, and with the committee vote decided by a single vote, it's unclear if the return to the 10 mph threshold will be approved by the full council.

Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th) said he's never been a fan of the cameras, "but I see what it has done. I've had about four fatalities in my ward because people are speeding."

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who voted against raising the threshold back to 10 mph, argued that it's too early to tell from any data whether the lower 6 mph threshold has been effective in changing drivers' habits.

She and Lightfoot administration officials noted the cameras are only allowed to operate near parks while the parks are open, or near schools on days when children are present; but many of the city's speed cameras were not operating for weeks after the lower threshold went into effect last year while school buildings were still closed during the pandemic, and then again in the summer.

"It's too early to evaluate that. It's too early to say it's not working and it's a bad idea. If anything, you need to wait longer to actually give the process an opportunity to see if it does work," Smith said. "I don't quite know what the rush is."

However, Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th) argued that speed cameras simply won't change people's driving habits, and if they would, the city would have seen a drop in speed camera revenue by now.

"It's hard for us to legislate people's driving habits, because we have no control over people once they get behind the wheel," she said.

Sadlowski-Garza, who voted in favor of Beale's ordinance, said she opposes speed cameras altogether.

"My constituents are adamant to get rid of these things," she said.

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